Maybe it’s because I just finished a few weeks of teaching the American New Wave/New American Cinema, but I’ve been watching a lot of 1960s and 1970s independent or semi-independent classics. Categorize Barbara Loden’s (Elia Kazan’s wife) only feature film as director (not to mention writer and actor) in the former category.
Produced by the “Foundation for Filmmakers” – a company created solely for the film and with no other credits for its name – Wanda is an achievement in low-budget filmmaking. More Blue Collar or Harlan County, USA than Easy Rider or Medium Cool, Wanda stars Loden in the eponymous role, opposite the underrated Michael Higgins as Mr. Dennis (Higgins played bit parts in The Conversation and Angel Heart, among others), an unlikely crime-spree couple.
If indebted to anything, perhaps Wanda owes its narrative spark to The Honeymoon Killers from 1969. Part of Wanda’s plot can also be found in greater detail in Peter Yates’ underrated 1973 film, The Friends of Eddie Coyle.
Shot in a grainy 16mm, Wanda is a character-study in the true sense of the term. We follow the title character for the entire film, watching her interactions with people, questioning her motivations, and generally witnessing her plight.
Loden frames several a wide-shot like this one. The coal-mining region of Central PA. Wanda is a lone white spot amidst an otherwise black, featureless landscape. That’s Wanda throughout the film. A visual anomaly:
The mundane locations, small interiors that look shot with available light are trademark of 60s-70s American independent cinema:
Wanda is also concerned, as with other films of this time, of the visual difference between the open space of the countryside versus the cramped city. The two stills below illustrate this difference. The first, where Wanda and Mr. Dennis drunkenly watch a model plane flying around, is unique within the film. It’s so open, empty, and blue:
Aside from perhaps The 400 Blows and Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, Wanda has the most effective ending freeze-frame in memory:
It’s curious to think where Wanda fits into film history. If nothing else Wanda fits into the pre-Watergate, post-Counter Culture mode of films that are heavily influenced by the recession of 1969-1971. It’s immediately after Easy Rider, during Cassavetes’ glory years, and concurrent with the start of many still-relevant American filmmakers of the Film School Generation. But then Loden fell off the map. Aside from her acting debut in Splendor in the Grass and this film, her filmography is largely unremarkable, and remained that way at her death in 1980 of cancer, making Wanda all the more tantalizing in a ‘what could have been’ kind of way.